In March 2014, I was having coffee with my best friend. We hadn't seen each other in a few weeks, because I had been on back-to-back business trips. She mentioned that I looked tired and thin, and asked when I had last been to the doctor. I told her I had made some appointments and kept having to reschedule them because of last-minute flight changes. She reached across the table, grabbed my wrist, and said "Not good enough. We're going today."
By the end of the day, it was confirmed that I had a large gastrointestinal carcinoid tumor -- a type of slow-growing cancer that at advanced stages can cause a blockage in your intestinal tract. I remember the shock and shame I felt as the doctor explained that this had been growing inside of me for years, getting larger as it fed on my body from the inside.
Of course, I had felt the sharp pain in my abdomen during all that time. I had certainly noticed that I was more tired and would get nauseated more easily. What was more important to me, however, was all the work that needed to get done. I was building a startup. That was more important than any one person-- including me.
I was incredibly lucky since after surgery and a mild recovery protocol, I was pronounced cancer-free. However, I learned that I had a genetic predisposition to developing these types of tumors. Unless I changed something, I wouldn't stay cancer-free forever.
Six years later, after making some simple tweaks, both my business and my health are better than ever. Here's what I did:
1. Ditch the notifications.
While this may seem drastic, the first thing I did -- right at the hospital -- was turn my phone on silent. It has stayed that way, with very few exceptions, ever since. I also disallow notifications from every application.
While this puts the burden on me of checking my email accounts, messaging, task management or other applications -- like Uber and Postmates -- manually, it removes the false urgency and increased stress of instant notifications.
2. Take a retreat.
Once my notifications were under control, I thought through when the last time I'd taken any time away from work was. As a remote employee, I quickly realized that I had managed to sneak at least some work into my schedule every single day for the past seven years-- even if it was ostensibly on "vacation."
To combat this, I took a week vacation retreat and left my tech behind -- including my cell phone -- and have done this for at least one week every year since.
3. Institute no-tech weekends.
As a tech entrepreneur, I've traditionally not had typical office hours -- especially as I've managed remote teams around the world, with 24-hour, 365-days a year service level agreements. It is easy to fall into the trap of answering messages as soon as they come in.
The best way I found to combat this for me was to remove the "work tech" on weekends. In my case, I do allow things like game consoles, e-book readers and televisions, but disallow phones -- except for strictly navigating or people coordination purposes -- and computers entirely.
4. Make it a date.
There's nothing like a health scare to make you realize that spending time with your family is way more important than whatever you're doing at work. The balance is hard to find, however, as you generally need to work hard to ensure that your family is supported and taken care of.
To deal with this, I started scheduling date nights and exercise slots on my calendar, with the agreement that anything that makes it onto my calendar is "unmissable." Soon, these became a habit that didn't require active scheduling, but I leave the time there anyway to ensure that nothing encroaches upon them.
What is it about these things that have made me more successful? Harvard studies show that lower stress levels give you a better ability to focus -- which in turn helps you produce work faster and with fewer mistakes.
Whatever you do, remember to take care of yourself. There's only one of you.